Who’s Behind the Counter: Karen Rocha at Shirley’s Family Diner

That’s “Family” as in “We are fam-i-ly.”

Catonsville Patch:  How long have you been in business in Catonsville?

Karen Rocha:  I started waitressing here when I was in high school and this was an International House of Pancakes.  After a few years, I became the general manager.  Then in 2005, I had to take off about six months to care for my mother while she had cancer.  When I came back after my Mom died, the owner, Thelma, decided to retire.  IHOP did not renew the lease, and Thelma convinced me to take over the business.  I was leery at the beginning, but finally I said yes.  Thelma showed me everything I needed to know and I’m so grateful.  She’s like my second Mom.

Patch:  Where did the name Shirley's Family Diner come from?

Rocha:  When we knew we were not going to be IHOP any more, Thelma asked me what I wanted to name the business, and I said I wanted to name it after my Mom, Shirley, who had just died.  She originally worked at IHOP, and she actually worked here for a while.

Patch:  How has the business changed since you took over?

Rocha:  Well, we’re no longer an IHOP, so we had to get rid of everything blue!  We did all the changes in two days, so we didn’t lose any business.  My sister did everything with the records and posters and album covers, and I like it, but I’m ready for a change.  I’m not sure what I want to do though; I’m asking people for their opinions.

I was really lucky, because all the employees came with me.  It was a little difficult at first, because they were used to me being their co-worker and then I was their boss.  But we worked it out.

Patch:  What do you like about being in Catonsville?

Rocha:  My son went to Our Lady of Victory and Cardinal Gibbons, so even though I didn’t live in Catonsville then, it was convenient for me to be working here. Now, I live and work here, and I love Catonsville.  I love the parks and the historic parts.

My business is not in the historic district, but I still feel like we’re part of the community, and being on Route 40, more people pass by and see us.

Patch:  What jobs do you do?

Rocha:  What don’t I do?  I cook, clean, do the ordering, the bookkeeping, hiring, training, scheduling.  Basically I do everything.  But my employees help a lot.

Patch:  What are your busiest times?

Rocha:  Mornings and weekends are always busy.  We’re always busiest for breakfast and lunch.  We’d love to pump up the dinner crowd.  I’ve added a lot of stuff to the menu, but I’ve always wanted a good breakfast because it’s the most important part of your day.  A lot of people love breakfast foods, and they forget that you can eat them for dinner!                                     

Patch:  Do you have a signature service or specialty thing you do?

Rocha:  People love all our omelets but especially the crab and shrimp omelet.  We have all different pancakes; everyone loves our pumpkin pancakes when we have them.  I make my own lasagna and barbecue spare ribs.  Lots of people love our black bean soup.  I keep that on the menu all the time.  We make most of our own desserts.  Banana pudding is a big favorite and I’ve just added a bread pudding to the menu.

Patch:  What’s one of the hardest things about your work?

Rocha:  This business is not as hard as I thought it would be.  But I haven’t had to let anyone go lately, so that’s a good thing.  That is hard.

Patch:  What are you proud of?

Rocha:  My staff.  Often customers will come and ask for someone specific to wait on them.  I put a lot of time into training my employees, and they are great.

Patch:  What’s your favorite thing about your work?

Rocha:  I love to interact with the customers.  Sometimes I’m busy, but I like to be sure they’re satisfied.  I also love to cook and I love to make desserts.  When it’s quiet, I often just bake something new.

Patch:  What are you looking forward to?

Rocha:  The economy is coming back up and we’re getting busier.  I want us to do more business in the evenings, and I’m trying to get people who haven’t been here to come and give us a try.  Once people come in, then they come back.

Patch:  What is one thing you think is needed in the business community?

Rocha:  We are very family oriented here.  I love my staff so much.  I have two cooks who have been here since the beginning; we grew up together and they’re basically my best friends.  I try to treat everyone like family.  I’d like to see more businesses in Catonsville follow that philosophy.


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